Mass surveillance in Australia

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Mass surveillance in Australia occurs through a variety of means affecting telephone, internet and other communications networks, financial systems, vehicle and transit networks, international travel, access to government services and other parts of society.



According to Greens' Senator Scott Ludlam, Australian law enforcement agencies were issued 243,631 warrants to obtain telecommunications logs in the period from July 2010 to June 2011, which vastly overshadowed the 3500-odd legal intercepts of communications.[1]

In 2013 it was reported that under Australian law state, territory and federal law enforcement authorities can access a variety of 'non-content' data from internet companies like Telstra, Optus and Google with authorization by senior police officers or government officials rather than judicial warrant, and that "During criminal and revenue investigations in 2011-12, government agencies accessed private data and internet logs more than 300,000 times."[2]

Google's transparency report shows a consistent trend of growth in requests by Australian authorities for private information, constantly rising approximately 20% year-on-year. The most recent published volume for the period ending December 2013 indicates a volume of around four individual requests per calendar day.[3]

Telstra's transparency report for the period 1 July - 31 December 2013 does not include requests by national security agencies, only police and other agencies. Nevertheless, in the six month period 40,644 requests were made, 36,053 for "Telstra customer information, carriage service records and pre-warrant checks" (name, address, date of birth, service number, call/SMS/internet records. Call records include called party, date, time and duration. Internet information includes date, time and duration of internet sessions and email logs from Telstra-administered addresses[4]), 2,871 for "Life threatening situations and Triple Zero emergency calls", 270 for "Court orders", 1450 for "Warrants for interception or access to stored communications" (real time access): an average of around 222 requests per calendar day.[5]

Cover page of the first version of the secret UKUSA Agreement, which was disclosed to the public in 2011, and was the basis for the modern Five Eyes international surveillance alliance.
Aerial view of Pine Gap, one of Australia's major spy facilities.
Aerial view of HMAS Harman, another of Australia's major spy facilities.

In 2013 more than 500 authors including five Nobel prize winners and Australian identities Frank Moorhouse, John Coetzee, Helen Garner, Geraldine Brooks and David Malouf signed a global petition to protest mass surveillance[6] after the whistleblower Edward Snowden's global surveillance disclosures informed the world, including Australians, that they are being monitored by the National Security Agency's XKeyscore system and its boundless informant. Snowden had further revealed that Australian government intelligence agencies, specifically the Australian Signals Directorate, also have access to the system as part of the international Five Eyes surveillance alliance.[7][8]

In August 2014 it was reported[9] that law-enforcement agencies had been accessing Australians' web browsing histories via internet providers such as Telstra without a warrant (Optus confirmed that they cooperate with law enforcement, and Vodafone did not return a request for comment). The revelations came less than a week after government attempts to increase their surveillance powers through new legislation allowing offensive computer hacking by government intelligence agencies, and mere months after outrage surrounding the government's offer to share personal information about citizens with Five Eyes intelligence partners.[10]

As of August 2014, no warrant is required for organizations to access the so-called 'metadata' information of private parties. This is information regarding "calls and emails sent and received, the location of a phone, internet browsing activity. There is no access to the content of the communication, just how, to or from whom, when and where." Under current law many organisations other than police and security agencies can get access to this information, including "any agency that collects government revenue",[1] for example the RSPCA,[1][11] the Australian Crime Commission,[12] the Australian Securities and Investments Commission,[12] the Australian Tax Office,[12] Medicare,[12] Australia Post,[12] the Australian Fisheries Management Authority,[1] the Victorian Taxi Services Commission,[1] the Victorian Transport Accident Commission,[1] local councils[11] and foreign law enforcement agencies.[11]

The Australian Communications and Media Authority provides instructions for internet service providers and other telecommunications providers about their law enforcement, national security and interception obligations.


Australia is known to be an avid user of telephone surveillance. In 2003, Australia issued 75% more wiretap warrants than the US did and this was 26 times greater than the US on a per capita basis.[13] In 2012 it was reported that year-on-year "Access to private data has increased by 20 per cent by Australia’s law enforcement and government agencies – and with no warrant."[12]

In addition, Australia requires that pre-paid mobile telecommunications providers verify the identity of individuals before providing service.[14][15]

2014 proposals[edit]

A range of proposals are under discussion that affect surveillance of the population by government in conjunction with commercial service providers.

Hacking powers[edit]

The proposals seek to give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation the right to hack in to computers and modify them.[16]

Single computer warrant to become umbrella surveillance[edit]

The proposals seek to give the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation the power to spy on whole computer networks under a single computer-access warrant.[16]

Spying on citizens abroad[edit]

The proposals seek to give the Australian Secret Intelligence Service the power to collect intelligence on Australian citizens overseas.[16]

Law against media and whistleblowing[edit]

Section 35P of the proposals seeks to create a new criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment for revealing information about so-called 'special intelligence operations'. There are no exceptions listed, and the law would apply to journalists even if they were unaware that they were revealing information about such an operation. Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus called the measure "an unprecedented overreach".[16]

Mandatory data retention[edit]

Mandatory data retention for two years of data relating to the internet and telecommunications activity of all Australians is currently under discussion.[11][16]

On Tuesday, August 5, government Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull complained about "waking up to newspaper headlines concerning the government's controversial plan for mandatory data retention", stating the government "risked unnecessary difficulties by pushing ahead with the data retention regime without fully understanding the details". In 2012, Turnbull had opposed mandatory retention.[17]

On Friday, August 8, Australia's federal privacy commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, stated he felt it remained "unclear" exactly what data was to be retained, and that "there is the potential for the retention of large amounts of data to contain or reveal a great deal of information about people's private lives and that this data could be considered 'personal information' under the Privacy Act".[17]

Later in the month, the head of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) appealed for access to private citizens' data on the grounds that commercial entities may already be collecting it.[18]

Reader comments on the article, published by the Sydney Morning Herald, were overwhelmingly critical of the government.


Australians rejected a national identity card system in 1986, however the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) developed a tax file number (TFN) system instead.


General depiction of northern Australia's Jindalee Operational Radar Network, used to track airborne and seaborne vessels across a vast area.

Australia and the European Union have signed in international agreement regarding the advanced sharing of traveler passenger name records for international travelers. These records typically include significantly more information that merely the name of the passenger.

In addition to passenger information and standard radar, Australia uses the Jindalee Operational Radar Network to detect individual boats and planes in the north and west of the country.

Vehicles are tracked by a range of systems including Automatic Number Plate Recognition, video and sensor-based traffic surveillance networks, cellular telephone tracking (if a device is known to be in the vehicle) and automated toll networks. The SCATS system, owned by the New South Wales government and initially deployed in Sydney, is a widely used traffic surveillance system in the country that is known under various other names in Adelaide (ACTS), Canberra (CATSS), Melbourne (SCRAM), the Northern Territory (DARTS) and Perth (PCATS).

Related law[edit]

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This section outlines the main legal references for mass surveillance in Australia.


Under Australian law, the following acts are prominent federal law in the area of surveillance.

A separate body of state-level laws also exists.

International agreements[edit]

Australia is part of the Five Eyes international surveillance network, run by the United States National Security Agency and generally protected from public scrutiny citing 'national security' concerns.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Aus becoming surveillance state: Ludlam". ZDNet. 20 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Nick O'Malley and Ben Grubb (7 June 2013). "Australians at risk in US electronic surveillance program". Sydney Morning Herald. 
  3. ^ "Google Transparency Report: Australia". 
  4. ^ Peter Micek and Matt Solomon (16 April 2014). "Australian Telco Telstra Releases First Transparency Report". 
  5. ^ "Telstra Transparency Report: 1 July - 31 December 2013". 
  6. ^ "More than 500 authors sign global petition to protest mass surveillance". The Australian. 10 December 2013. 
  7. ^ Dorling, Philip (July 8, 2013). "Snowden Reveals Australia's Links to US Spy Web". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved August 2, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Mike Head (3 December 2013). "Snowden document confirms US-backed mass surveillance in Australia". World Socialist Web Site. 
  9. ^ Ben Grubb (20 August 2014). "Telstra found divulging web browsing histories to law-enforcement agencies without a warrant". Sydney Morning Herald. 
  10. ^ Aaron Gluck Thaler (15 August 2014). "Australia government pushing to expand surveillance, hacking powers". Privacy International. 
  11. ^ a b c d Gillian Lord (25 July 2014). "Privacy fears as Australian surveillance laws are dragged into the digital era". The Guardian. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f "Australian surveillance ‘out of control’: 20% increase in 1 year". Russia Today. 3 December 2012. 
  13. ^ "Wiretapping Australia". 2003. 
  14. ^ "Law enforcement (Telecommunications): Identity verification in relation to pre-paid mobile services". Australian Communications and Media Authority. 
  15. ^ "Telecomms & law enforcement: obligations". Australian Communications and Media Authority. 
  16. ^ a b c d e "Citizens Not Suspects: Learn More". 
  17. ^ a b c d James Massola and Ben Grubb (9 August 2014). "Data retention Hokey Pokey: Liberals caught in public embarrassment over privacy". 
  18. ^ Ben Grubb (22 August 2014). "Metadata ambiguity to be resolved by government data retention policy paper: sources". Sydney Morning Herald. 

External links[edit]